April 22, 2014 at 5:13 pm

Maureen Tisdale

Let's Talk Food: Purple yams, and what are your favorite whimsical foods?

The purple yam looks like a regular sweet potato on the outside, but cuts open to a deep natural purple (with occasional white streaks). I like them mashed with a little butter and salt. (Maureen Tisdale)

Saturday, I was pretty excited to see a medium flat rate box stuffed to the seams sitting on my porch.

My purple yams had arrived, just in time for Easter. Not that there’s anything traditionally Eastery about them — although I love the idea of such a deep purple food on a table for a holiday known for colored eggs, fancy hats and other whimsy — but since I really didn’t plan a holiday meal, this would be my treat for Sunday and beyond.

See, I haven’t had a lot of luck finding these beauties locally in a long time. Close to a regular potato on the outside and a royal purple (with occasional streaks of white) on the inside, they used to be at Randazzo’s on the east side, but disappeared, which sent me on a quest. I eventually found them at a small Asian market near our church, but after a while those became raggedy, then nonexistent. I mentioned them in a previous Let’s Talk Food, hoping some reader might have the scoop on another local source, but no luck.

So online I went, and found them at http://www.hawaiiveggiefarm.com. The site says these gorgeous Hawaiian Purple Sweet Potatoes (also known as Okinawan potato or purple yam) are richly nutritious — but I mention that in passing, because what I really love is their sweet taste (greatly enhanced by a little butter and salt, but what isn’t?) and almost muffin-like mouth feel.

Now to be fair, I should share that when I brought some of my previous batch to my son’s day care (the workers were curious about the weird purple food I’d brought for my son), one woman loved them, and others commiserated with my husband that I’d said they were like cake. My husband loves to comfort people in such scenarios, explaining it’s been years since I had “real” sweets and cannot be trusted on claims of similarity.

So if you decide to try these, go in with an open mind — they may not stack up to cake, but they are like a heartier, sweeter sweet potato with a denser, drier texture, and they’re so Seussical they’d be a great surprise for little kids or a whimsical talker of a dish for a potluck.

I like ’em straight up baked (in an oven for a longer time than a regular potato due to their density) or microwaved til they’re fork-tender, then mashed with the aforementioned butter and salt. You don’t want to eat the skin, and there can be odd bitter little puckers around the outside you want to remove. To get as much of the potato as I can AND watch for the puckers to dig out before mashing, I find it easiest to peel them as soon as they’re cool enough to handle, rather than scooping them out (you’ll have to scoop, though, if you wait until they’re completely cooled). I prefer them cold, so they’re perfect to tuck into coolers for travel (they definitely would have come with us for that food-laden Texas road trip I told you about last week had I had some on hand then) or a summer picnic.

But if you’d like to experiment, you can find recipes (on the Hawaii Veggie Farm site and beyond) for desserts like pudding and cake using the yam — it’s definitely naturally very sweet. Back when I was buying them at a local market, a Vietnamese woman asked me if I was planning to make cake with them and seemed surprised I ate them like a mashed potato.

Of course, to mail order them you’re going to get them in bulk — I get a box of 12 pounds and plan on using them for weeks (the site says you can freeze them, too — I might try that this time to take some pressure off. Too much, even of a great thing, is still too much). The 12-pound box is $29 with free shipping, so it’s also a fun gift for creative cooks or fellow devotees (my mother-in-law stands shoulder to shoulder with me in her appreciation for them, and she got a box for her birthday last month).

My 22-month-old son, coming off a week-long virus where he had little to no appetite, seemed pretty happy to get back into the eating world with some of these purple beauties Sunday night. I’ll have to wait until he can really talk to find out if it’s the taste that he likes, or if the yam’s fun, unexpected nature reminds him of the multiple Dr. Seuss books he loves to have read to him night after night.

Do you have a particularly whimsical food you love to buy or make? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below. You need a Facebook account to add comments, but they’re easy to sign up for, and free. Detroit News Food Editor Maureen Tisdale will respond to comments or questions in the next few days. You also can follow her on Twitter @reentiz. Join the discussion!